Mandatory Minimum Sentences – Federal Criminal Defense

David Lindsey, Attorney at Law

The Department of Justice has announced a new policy to handle low-level drug offenses committed by nonviolent offenders without gang affiliations. The policy is one part of a sweeping prison reform package introduced by Attorney General Eric Holder to an American Bar Association gathering in San Francisco on Monday.

Holder unveiled the new policy, which the Justice Department has been working on for months, asserting that “we must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is, in too many ways, broken. And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, to deter and to rehabilitate — not merely to warehouse and to forget.”

Under this new policy, the Justice Department would reserve the most severe penalties for drug crimes committed by serious, high-level or violent drug offenders. New instructions are being given to federal prosecutors in order to avoid writing criminal complaints in such a way that mandatory minimums could be triggered. “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason,” Holder said. “We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.”

Holder says he plans to work in concert with the Department of Education and other allies “to confront the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ and those zero-tolerance school discipline policies that do not promote safety,” but instead lead students instead directly to incarceration.

Holder did not specify any changes to the Department of Justice policy on marijuana, which remains illegal under federal statute. Because the Justice Department has not yet determined how to proceed in states like Colorado, whose legalization measures run in opposition to the federal Controlled Substances Act, state and local officials remain confused about the best way to proceed. A Justice Department spokesman said the matter is still under review.

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